Ever hear the saying about swimmers with big hands and feet? They’re sunk unless they’ve got the ability and heart to match. Not a problem for Michael Phelps, the greatest all-around competitor in the history of his sport. Every time he splashed into the water, he was determined to produce a once-in-a-lifetime performance—according him rock-star status among swim fans and drawing a tidal wave of attention from the non-chlorinated world, as well. Iron Mike began his career hoping to win a few medals and inspire others to embrace competitive swimming. Four Olympics later, he stands as the most decorated athlete in the history of the Summer Games. This is his story…

GROWING UP

Michael Phelps was born on June 30, 1985 to Fred and Debbie Phelps. (Click here for today's sports birthdays.) His parents already had two daughters, Hilary and Whitney. The family lived in Maryland, just outside of Baltimore. Fred was a state trooper, and Debbie was a middle-school teacher who was twice named Maryland’s “Teacher of the Year.”

Fred was a good athlete, and passed his ability on to his kids. All three got into swimming at an early age. Hilary showed real promise, particularly in the butterfly, but eventually gave up the sport. Whitney stuck with it much longer. One of the better swimmers in her area, she tried out for the U.S. Olympic team in 1996 at the age of 15. Michael was among those in attendance to cheer her on. When Whitney didn't qualify, he was left devastated like the rest of the family. Ultimately, her career was cut short by a series of herniated disks.

Michael learned a lot from his sisters, particularly the value of hard work. Hilary started swimming the year he was born, and Michael spent many afternoons in a stroller watching her practice. He eventuall followed both sisters into the pool, though initially with great hesitancy. As a seven-year-old, he refused to put his face in the water. Sensing Michael’s fear, his instructors allowed him to float around on his back. No surprisingly, the first stroke he mastered was the backstroke.

Focus was never a problem for Michael in the pool. He spent hour after hour in the water. In school, however, Michael stuggled at times. He was diagnosed with ADHD after his ninth birthday. Michael worked with Debbie to overcome the condition.

Outside of swimming, Michael was a normal teenager. He rooted for Baltimore sports teams, read books on sports heroes like Lance Armstrong and Vince Lombardi, and usually fell asleep with the family cat, Savannah, curled up next to him. He didn’t like getting out of the bed in the morning, but refused to slow down once his day began. He tried his hand at baseball (as a catcher and shortstop), soccer and lacrosse as a youngster.

One of the turning points for Michael came when he saw swimmers Tom Malchow and Tom Dolan compete at the 1996 Summer Games in Atlanta. The 11-year-old began to dream of becoming a champion himself.

By then, Michael’s home life had changed drastically. After years of fighting, his parents divorced. High school sweethearts, they had separated before Michael was born, gotten back together, and then split for good in 1992. The kids went to live with Debbie. Michael grew very close to his mother, while Fred did what he could to keep a foothold in his children’s lives. Today Michael has very little contact with his father.

A new male presence entered Michael’s life in 1996. He had started his swimming career at Towson’s Loyola High School pool. But when it became clear he needed better facilities and more professional coaching, he moved on to the North Baltimore Aquatic Club at the Meadowbrook Aquatic and Fitness Center. There he met Bob Bowman. The coach recognized Michael’s potential immediately.

Bowman told Debbie that her son was a rare talent. Long-limbed with big hands and feet, he took to instruction very well, loved to work hard and never seemed nervous in competition. In fact, Michael’s only “shortcoming” was the tremendous growth spurt he was experiencing. On some days, it tended to cause fatigue.

Michael’s competitive fire burned intensely. He hated to lose, and reacted angrily on the odd occasions when he did. Once Michael flung his goggles away in disgust after finishing behind a swimmer of the same age. Bowman pulled him aside and warned him never to act that way again.


 

 

 

 

 


Lance Armstrong,
2003 Sports Illustrated

     
 

When he entered Towson High School, Michael toyed with the idea of going out for football, and later played on the golf team. Because Towson didn’t have a swim team, Michael continued competing for the NBAC. He performed well in his sophomore year, which convinced him that he could be something truly special in the water. He picked up his training regimen considerably as a junior, working out 10 times a week.

ON THE RISE

In 1999, Michael earned a spot on the U.S. National B Team. At the Junior Nationals, he broke a record in the 200-meter butterfly for the 20-year-old age group. Michael’s ascent through the U.S. swimming ranks accelerated in 2000. At the Spring Nationals, he finished third in the 200-meter butterfly. Weeks later at the Olympic Trials, he lined up against Malchow and others in the same event, intent on securing a spot on the American team. Unphased by this heady company, he placed second and earned the right to represent his country in Sydney, Australia.

At 15, Michael became the youngest swimmer to compete for the U.S. in the Olympics in 68 years. He acquitted himself well, touching the wall in fifth place in the 200-meter butterfly. Michael ended the year ranked 7th in the world in the 200-meter butterfly and 44th in the 400-meter individual medley.

Michael entered 2001 poised to take another huge step in his career, and staged his coming out party at the Phillips 66 National Championships that August. First he set a world record in 200-meter butterfly at 1:54.92. Then he captured the gold in the 100-meter butterfly. Running fifth at the midway point, Michael turned on the jets down the stretch for the victory.

After winning the 200-meter butterfly at the Pan Pacific Championships, Michael ended his year in style by bettering his own mark in the event at the World Championships in Fukuoka, Japan. The owner of his first international medal, he pushed his world record to 1:54.58.

Michael’s stunning season energized his sport. Veterans like Malchow rededicated themselves, hoping to keep pace with the teenage phenom. Meanwhile, Michael bucked conventional wisdom by sacrificing his college eligibility and declaring himself a pro. Sponsors were beating down his door, and his mother and coach saw no reason to delay the inevitable. Speedo led the charge, inking him to a six-figure deal. At the ripe old age of 16, Michael was becoming a brand unto himself.

Meanwhile, records continued to fall in Michael’s wake. At the 2002 U.S. Nationals in Ft. Lauderdale, he notched four wins—in the 100-meter and 200-meter butterfly and the 200-meter and 400-meter individual medley. His time of 4:11.09 in the 400 established a new world mark.

     
 

Michael was equally dominant at the Pan Pacific Championships. After golds in the 200-meter and 400-meter individual medley and a silver in the 200-meter butterfly, he helped America’s four-man team to victory in the 400-meter medley in a world-record time of 3:33.48. His opening leg was the fastest ever in the event’s history. By season’s end, Michael was the world’s top swimmer in three events.

The comparisons to Ian Thorpe began soon after. The Australian had emerged as the most dominant swimmer of his era at the 2000 Olympics. With Michael demonstrating similar strength, speed and endurance, the media and fans wondered whether he could surpass the “Thorpedo.”

Michael handled the hype with poise. In fact, he had been watching tapes of Thorpe for several years to assist in his training. Being compared to him was an honor more than anything else.

After graduating from high school in 2003, Michael shifted his focus to the U.S. Spring National Championships. There he floored onlookers by becoming the first man to win in three different strokes at one national event. His victories came in the 200-meter freestyle, 200-meter backstroke and 100-meter butterfly.

Heading into the World Championships in Barcelona, Spain, Michael was the talk of the swimming world—though not all of the discussion was complimentary. Citing the fact that he had yet to win anything “big,” Australian coach Don Talbot said that comparing Michael to Thorpe was nonsense.

Upon reading Talbot's comments, Bowman used the locker room fodder to his advantage, making sure his prodigy read the remarks. Michael admitted later that he went into the World Championships with extra motivation. It showed. In an astonishing performance, he medaled six times and set five world records. Michael won the 200-meter butterfly with a new world mark (1:59.93), and also turned in record times in the 100-meter butterfly (51.47 seconds) and 200-meter individual medley (1:56.04)—doing so on the same day, which was a first in swimming history. He concluded his eye-popping run with a gold in the 400-meter relay.


Ian Thorpe, 2001 SI for Kids
     
 

Michael next rolled into the U.S. Summer Nationals. Swimming in front of hometown fans in College Park, Maryland, he became the first man to claim five national titles in a single meet. His victories—in the 100-meter, 200-meter and 400-meter freestyle, 200-meter backstroke and 200-meter individual medley—proved he was more than just a master of the butterfly. His final win also cost Bowman his hair. The coach lost a bet with Michael, and had to shave his head.

As the year drew to a close, the hype surrounding Michael approached a fever pitch. With the 2004 Summer Games less 10 months away, marketers began lining up to get their piece of him. Speedo struck first, extending his endorsement deal through 2009. The contract was worth an estimated $9 million.

Sorting through all the offers was a monumental task. Michael relied heavily on his agent Peter Carlisle, who also represented swimmer Lenny Krayzelburg and snowboarder Kelly Clark. In the ensuing months, the teen inked deals with Visa, Omega, AT&T Wireless, Power Bar and several other companies.

Michael opened '04 in impressive fashion. At the Conoco Phillips National Championships, he repeated his quintuple, taking five golds. Michael smoked the competition, obliterating the field in most of his events. Never satisfied, even in victory, he and Bowman huddled afterwards and picked apart his technique. They agreed that Michael’s starts and turns needed work.

The 18-year-old struggled a bit in his next few appearances. At the Grand Prix in Indianapolis, he bowed out of the action because of a stomach bug. In May at the Santa Clara International Invitation, Aaron Piersol beat him twice, in the 100-meter and 200-meter backstroke. Michael, however, exacted some revenge against Ian Crocker (who had defeated him earlier in the year), outracing him in the 100-meter butterfly.

Of course, Michael’s season was building toward the Olympics in Athens. So was the buzz surrounding him. Could he top Mark Spitz and the seven gold medals he won in 1972? Speedo offered a $1 million bounty if he matched Spitz, ratcheting up the already immense pressure Michael faced heading into the U.S. Olympic Trials.


Michael Phelps souvenir photo
     
 

Michael handled the circus atmosphere with his usual confidence and cool. He began the competition with a world record in the 400-meter medley, and finished by becoming the first American swimmer to qualify for six individual events. He also found his way onto a pair of relay teams. At the awards ceremony after the trials, Spitz greeted Michael, raised the teen’s hand to salute the crowd, and then wished him luck.

Up next for Michael was his shot at immortality—a pretty tall order for a kid who still didn’t have to shave every day! Michael opened his Olympic experience in impressive fashion, winning the gold in the 400 individual medley in world-record time (4:08.26). One down, eight to go.

His pursuit of Olympic gold history ended a few days later, however, when South Africa and Australia finished ahead of him and his American teammates in 4 x100 freestyle relay. He also took the bronze in the 200-meter freestyle, though he gave the champion Thorpe all he could handle. Still, with three medals in three races, Michael was far from disappointed.

Michael got back on the gold track in each of his next four races. In a thrilling duel that came right down to the wire, he paced the Americans to victory in the 4 x200 freestyle relay. Michael swam the lead leg, and then rooted his heart out as Klete Keller edged Australia's Thorpe down the stretch.

The 19-year-old did it all on his own in his final three events. After winning the 200-meter butterfly, he set a pair of Olympic records in the 100-meter butterfly and 200-meter inidividual medley. But his greatest moment in Athens may have come out of the pool.

Though he had qualified for America's 4 x 100-meter medley relay, Michael gave up his spot to teammate Ian Crocker, who he had beaten in the 100-meter butterfly. The relay was Crocker's last chance to earn a gold, and Michael felt he deserved the opportunity. Crocker was nearly speechless with admiration when he learned the news. With Michael in the stands cheering loudly, the Americans cruised to victory. Despite not swimming, Michael was awarded a gold nonetheless.

Six golds and two bronzes—not a bad week's work. And Michael's unselfish gesture on Crocker's behalf bolstered his already sterling reputation. His Olympic bounty also promised new riches, including a likely deal from McDonald's. (In an interview with Bob Costas after he finished competing, Michael said he couldn't wait to chow down on a big breakfast from the fast-food giant.)

Upon returning to the U.S., Michael embarked on "Swim with the Stars"—a national tour designed to promote swimming. Along with teammates Krayzelburg and Crocker, he entertained huge crowds with demonstrations and Q&A sessions. In between, he also appeared on a host of TV shows, including Good Morning America, Live with Regis and Kelly and The Tonight Show. Back in Towson, a parade ("The Phelpstival") was held in his honor, and Michael also stopped in Michigan to participate in the opening ceremonies of the Ryder Cup. Among the people he met there was Donald Trump (who asked him to drop him a line when he visits New York City). Ultimately, the fanfare proved so draining that Michael pulled out of the World Short Course Swimming Championships in Indiana.

Weeks later, the 19-year-old showed that he still had some growing up today. On a Thursday night in Salisbury, he was arrested on a drunken driving charge after rolling through a stop sign. Compounding the problem was the fact that Michael had yet to reach the legal drinking age in Maryland. It is unclear why his pals—well aware of his new mega-celebrity status—allowed him to get behind the wheel.

Embarrassed by his actions, he immediately apologized, calling his actions "unacceptable." Michael received his punishment in December. Sentenced to 18 months probation, he was ordered to pay a $250 fine, attend a meeting sponsored by Mothers Against Drunk Driving, and speak at local schools about the dangers of alcohol.


Mark Spitz, 1972 Sports Illustrated
     
 

Michael learned the hard way that with fame comes a wide assortment of pitfalls. The marketing potential of his magnificent Olympic performance was dramatically undercut, and he had to settle for considerably less than he had expected.

Michael enrolled at the University of Michigan in 2005, after coach Bowman accepted the varsity coaching job in Ann Arbor. He served as Bowman’s assistant, and started working toward a degree in sports marketing and management.

Coming out of the Olympics, Michael had his sights set on more than Olympic glory and a big payday. He wanted to transform his sport the way other great athletes like Michael Jordan and Tiger Woods had. Now he had to wait until he re-entered the spotlight.

That opportunity came in March of 2007, at the World Championships in Melbourne, Australia. Competing in the backyard of Thorpe—the man who owned the record for six gold medals in this competition—Michael won seven events and obliterated world records in five by jaw-dropping margins. He also set personal bests in all seven events.

Michael won 100-meter and 200-meter butterfly, the 200-meter freestyle, the 200-meter and 400-meter individual medley, and both freestyle relays he entered. In the 400-meter individual medley, Michael shattered the record he set in the 2004 Summer Games buy more than two seconds.

Michael might have had an eighth gold medal, but ironically teammate Ian Crocker left too early and the American team was disqualified. In all, the Americans won 20 gold medals, equaling their team record set at the 1978 World Championships in Germany.

The pursuit of eight golds would have to wait for the Beijing Olympics in August of 2008. In October of 2007, Michael’s quest was nearly derailed when he slipped on a patch of ice and fractured his right wrist. (Michael, a self-described klutz on dry land, now bears a surgical scar as a memento of that moment.)

Interrupting a training cycle is no simple matter when billions of people expects you to win eight races. Initially, Michael was heartbroken. For several weeks, he was only allowed to use a kickboard. This ended up being a blessing because he added a little strength to his kick.

MAKING HIS MARK

The 2008 season, of course, was all about the Olympics. Michael was primed to become the leading gold medalist in the history of the Olympics, and had a chance of winning eight golds in Beijing. That meant qualifying in eight events: 400-meter individual medley, 4 x 100-meter freestyle relay, 200-meter freestyle, 200-meter butterfly, 4 x 200-meter freestyle relay, 100-meter butterfly 4 x 100-meter medley relay. Michael put forth a glitch-free performance in Omaha and made all eight events.

By the time the games opened, Michael was the main man at the Olympics. Records seemed destined to fall—the pool at Beijing's Water Cube was fast, and the new shape-compressing suits being worn produced less drag on the swimmers.

And true to form, every time he jumped in the pool another world record seemed to fall. In the end, he won his eight gold medals, setting world records in seven and an Olympic record in the eighth.

Although Michael made it look fairly easy, there were some anxious moments to be sure. In the second race—the freestyle relay—the U.S. needed a history-making anchor leg by Jason Lezak to edge France and with the gold.

In the 200-meter butterfly, Michael’s goggles started to leak. Keeping cool, he dispensed with visual cues and simply counted the strokes for each length. It was an amazing performance that not only ended in victory, but a new world record—breaking the one he had set in 2007. Later Michael described his problem as a “wardrobe malfunction.”

By contrast, in the 200-meter freestyle, Michael’s swim was problem-free and utterly dominant. The silver medalist finished almost two seconds behind him.

Michael had one brief dalliance with exhaustion. After Day 7—with two days of swimming to go—he had won the 200-meter individual medley and swam a semifinal qualifier for the 100-meter butterfly.


Michael Phelps,
2004 Sunday Sports
     
 

That seemed to show the next day in the 100-meter butterfly. Michael lagged behind Milorad Cavic, who was swimming the race of his life. In the final 20 feet, Michael looked like a beaten swimmer. But his extra kicking strength powered him close enough to the exhausted Cavic that he touched the wall a hundredth of a second sooner. Replayed showed that, on the final stroke, Cavic had Michael beaten. But Cavic glided to the wall while Michael made one last desperate lunge. It was the only race in which he did not set a new world record. But it was easily his most memorable.

With seven gold medals in the bag, Michael needed only to swim the butterfly in the third leg of the medley relay the next day to surpass Spitz. When he dove into the pool, the U.S. team was in third place. When he finished they were in first place. Lezak finished off the race nearly a second ahead of Australia. Michael had his eighth gold and his seventh world-record time.

Spitz’s records had held for 36 years, and he swam just two strokes—freestyle and butterfly—at a maximum length of 200 meters. Michael swam all four strokes—freestyle, butterfly, breast and back—with a maximum distance of 400 meters. In Michael’s five individual events, he needed three rounds to win instead of the two Spitz had to deal with. In all, Michael competed in 17 races over a span of nine days.

Not surprisingly, the 2009 swimming season saw Michael pull back a bit from his grueling regimen. At the U.S. Nationals, he entered only three individual events, the 100-meter and 200-meter butterfly and the 200-meter freestyle. Of course, he won all three.

At the World Championships in Rome that summer, Michaele added five more gold medals to his trophy case, plus one silver. The second-place finish was bigger news than the five firsts. Michael was edged in the 200-meter freestyle by Paul Biedermann. Bob Bowman raised a stink, claiming that the German was wearing an illegal polyurethane bodysuit that gave him an unfair advantage. It was the first race in four years that Michael touched second.

Michael was unfazed. In his next event, he broke his own world record in the 200-meter butterfly. Michael also swam a leg of the 200-meter freestyle relay as the U.S. team set a new world mark with a time of 1:44.49. He then won the 100-meter freestyle and took his fifth gold as a member of the 4 x 100 medley, as the Americans team turned in another world-record time.


Michael Phelps,
2008 Sports Illustrated
     
 

There were still pitfalls to avoid. Early in 2009, a British tabloid ran a photo of Michael taking a hit off a bong. The picture quickly made its rounds all over the internet. Michael apologized publicly, but Kellogg’s dropped him from their sponsorship deal and USA Swimming suspended him for three months without funding.

With the swimming world’s focus starting to turn toward the 2012 Olympics, all eyes were on Michael to see if he could continue to rule the pool. So at the 2010 U.S. Nationals in August, the big story was not a win but a loss. Ryan Lochte, viewed by just about everyone as the successor to Michael’s throne, edged him in the 200-meter individual medley. It was the first time Lochte had defeated Michael in this event at a major meet.

Later in the competition, Michael finished fourth in the backstroke. Michael rebounded to turn in a masterful performance at the Pan Pacific Championships later that month. He won five gold medals—two in the butterfly and three as a member of relay teams.

The 2011 World Championships saw Michael take individual gold in both butterfly events, plus silver in the 200-meter freestyle and 200-meter individual medley, finishing second to Lochte for the second time in a row. Michael also took home two golds as a member of the U.S. relay team. His 50.57 butterfly leg in the 4 x100 blew everyone out of the pool.

Despite the occasional highlight, Michael described his performance between Olympics as “horrendous.” He hit a new personal low at a meet in Austin late in 2011, when his time in a freestyle preliminary was so poor that he ended up swimming in a consolation race.

As the 2012 Olympics neared, all sorts of speculation surrounded what Michael would and would not do. He swore up and down that he would not compete in eight events again, but lo and behold, at the U.S. Olympic Trials, he qualified in the same eight events he’d swam in Beijing. Despite winning the 200-meter freestyle, he decided to drop this event in London so he could concentrate on relays.


Ryan Lochte, 2007 Upper Deck
     
 

Michael’s first event in London was the 400-meter individual relay. It was not a good start. He finished fourth, failing to win a medal for the first time since his first Olympics, in 2000. He reached the medal stand a day later, as Team USA won silver in the 4 x 100 freestyle relay. Michael saw the fastest leg for the American team.

Two days later, Michael earned his first individual medal of the games when he finished .05 seconds behind Chad de Clos in the 200-meter butterfly. Michael’s first gold medal of 2012 came as a member of the 4 x 200 relay team. It was the 19th medal of his career, setting a new Olympic record.

Again, two days later, Michael won the 16th gold medal of his Olympic career when he edged Lochte in the 200-meter individual medley. It was the third time in a row that he’d won gold in the same event—something no male swimmer had done before. When Michael won the 100-meter butterfly the next night, it also marked the third straight Olympic victory for him in that event. He avenged his early loss to de Clos by almost a quarter-second.

Michael finished his Olympic career as a member of the winning team in the 4 x 100 medley relay, swimming the third leg. It was Michael’s 18th career gold medal and the 22nd medal of his Olympic career.

As he retires to “private” life, Michal can count on even less privacy now that he can’t retreat to the pool every day. He seems ready to take on these new challenges and will hopefully find a workable balance between his work with his foundation, charities like the Boys & Girls Clubs and the corporate speaking engagements and appearances he’ll be making. Whatever comes next for Michael, one thing will never change. No athlete has done more for a sport —or dominated it— quite like he has.

MICHAEL THE SWIMMER

The first place to start with Michael is his body. He stands 6-4 with a wingspan of nearly 80 inches. By all accounts, his frame is perfect for a swimmer. Michael understands how to use his body to its full advantage. His hands and feet are like paddles in the water, and he has an incredibly powerful kick. The butterfly is his signature stroke, but he’s shown the ability to dominate in any event.


Michael Phelps, 2012 Men’s Journal
     
 

Michael’s technique is excellent, and no one works harder at it. His training regimen is grueling—two to five hours a day in the pool. He does minimal weightlifting; at this point flexibility and a feel for the water are more important to him.

The leg strength Michael added during his 2007 wrist-injury rehab was evident in Beijing on his powerful turns. In the races where he trailed, he made up an extraordinary amount of time pushing off the wall. That extra power in his kick also bought him the hundredth of a second edge he needed to come from behind in the 100-meter butterfly.

His physique notwithstanding, endurance may be Michael’s single greatest asset. He’s able to hold his stroke under pressure and when fatigue begins to creep in. From a mind over matter standpoint, Michael is also off the charts. His ability to relax, focus and block out the pain all at once is unique in his sport. He never seems nervous before a race, yet his intensity on the starting block is unmatched.


Michael Phelps book
     

 

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